Increasing evidence that faith and prayer help patients heal is encouraging a once unimaginable partnership between medical science and religion.
As the nation flirts with alternative cures—from herbs to tai chi—doctors, scientists, and clergy are exploring how religion and spirituality facilitate physical health and emotional well-being. Influential people and institutions are studying connections between the two in a trend dating back more than a decade. What is changing, the experts say, is that clinical findings are finally being shared with family physicians and local pastors.
"For a long time, we've been exploring and researching the relationship between belief and healing as a complement, not an alternative, to traditional medicine," says Herbert Benson, director of the Spirituality and Healing in Medicine course. The course, offered at a regional three-day conference sponsored by Harvard Medical School's Department of Continuing Education, recently attracted more than 600 doctors, nurses, psychologists, and social workers to the Institute of Religion at Houston's Texas Medical Center. They came for training in how spirituality shapes general health and the ability to recover from serious illness.
In this, the fourth year of such regional seminars, it is clear there is a growing emphasis on listening to—and understanding—a patient's faith as a significant factor in a person's healing. As physicians have discovered the healing power of prayer (CT, Jan. 6, 1997, p. 20), more than thirty of the nation's top medical schools now offer teaching programs on the subject, compared to only three in 1993.
TREATING THE WHOLE PERSON: That factor underscores a major shift within academic medicine to train doctors in the treatment of "the whole person—body, mind, and spirit," says David Larson, president of the National Institute for Healthcare Research.
Working with the John Templeton Foundation, the institute last summer announced that eight medical schools had been granted funds to study how social and religious factors influence mental and physical health. The intersection of faith and medicine is one of the key concerns of the foundation, founded in 1997.
"People's faith has a very strong influence over their well-being, their willingness to fight disease, and their ability to get well," says pediatric surgeon John Templeton, Jr., the foundation's president and son of its founder. He emphasizes that, until recently, the medical community too often overlooked faith's role in health.
"Most physicians have been trained primarily in empirical science, chemical formularies, and surgical technique," Templeton says. "In the process, we have created a great divide. We separated the mind from the body. As a result, in some cases, we have lost touch with our patients."
New clinical studies support Templeton's and Larson's contentions. Advocates say they provide more than anecdotal evidence that faith plays a major role in physical health.
Religious leaders insist medicine is finally returning to faith, once its partner in healing. They point to the biblical tradition in which Jesus and his apostles laid hands on the infirm and to the church's tradition of healing by faith.
GETTING THE MESSAGE: The nation's medical schools and its physicians may finally be listening. Two recent surveys of health professionals found 99 percent of family physicians and 94 percent of executives with health maintenance organ-izations believe that spiritual practices including prayer and meditation accelerate healing.
More than half the doctors surveyed reported they now weave relaxation and meditation—or what scholars call mind/ body techniques—into a balanced program for their patients.
While it remains unclear whether all the discussion will translate into ongoing change in general medical practice, the Harvard-sponsored conferences are but one facet of a growing movement to bridge the gap between the pew and the operating room. Some techniques are questionable, but many leading advocates come from traditional medical backgrounds.
Benson believes the results have far-reaching implications, because incorporating belief and spirituality into modern medicine "has the potential to reduce the cost of health care for individuals and society."
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